My hiking (and life) partner chose Shortoff Mountain because he knew I would fall in love with the dry, stark terrain and the unforgiving sun. I’ve always loved landscapes that reflect extremes and this trail allowed me to revel in that part of myself. The limbs of dead trees flailed in the white blue sky and burnt-up pines rested in hot black soil full of soft ash. The scent of sand and fire was heady as we climbed and looked out over Lake James, a life source from a seemingly different universe. I’d needed a break from the lush green forests that have become familiar as kin after all these years, and I felt enlivened and deeply interested in this place.
Shortoff Mountain is one of the driest parts of Western North Carolina and it has had more wildfires than just about anywhere else in the area. We saw strong, hearty Carolina Hemlocks, but the pines were deeply affected. Birds of prey, namely hawks and vultures, drifted through the sky above Linville Gorge and smaller song birds hopped through empty branches and scorched stumps.
The terrain changed as we moved higher and higher. Fields of trees fallen into each other’s arms gave way to blooming rhododendron, oaks and red maples, and mountain laurel. We stumbled onto a gulch dripping crystal clear water into the gorge, and at the very top of the mountain we rested at a mossy pond teeming with thousands of tiny frogs no bigger than holly berries. I couldn’t help but think of Annie Dillard at Tinker Creek when I tried to contemplate how many living things existed in that water, that vital ecosystem tucked away up there.
We met a couple camping with their tent pitched on top of the mountain. They were worried about sleeping through the noise of cicadas who’d been our constant companions along the trail. I’m still jealous, I told them with a smile. I had a brief fantasy about asking them where they were from and starting an even deeper conversation, but our little girl was exhausted and needed dinner.
We hiked down to a gentle breeze and a sky turning orange. My heart was full of gratitude.